Back in college, I assumed Beethoven was the World’s Most Popular Composer. After all, his Ninth Symphony (the “Choral”, which you’d recognize in a second if I hummed the main tune for you) was then the top vote-getter for Most Popular Classical Music Ever. And everybody knows the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. (“di-di-di-DAHHH!”)
But I was wrong. Turns out it’s Mozart. Has been for a long time. And it makes a certain sense: Mozart was a major player during the Classical era (the late 1700s, when art music evolved into the form it’s had ever since, called “classical” music in honor of that period), and he wrote a ton of stuff — over 600 works, including 41 symphonies, a couple of dozen piano concertos, a couple of dozen masses, a couple of dozen operas, and so forth. And his music is cheerful and energetic and easy to listen to.
So where does Beethoven stand? If you visit the website Arkivmusic.com, you can view a list of their 100 most requested composers. In first place is Mozart, followed by … Bach! Then it’s Beethoven, then Brahms (aha! there are the “Three Bs” we learned as children, all bunched together near the top), then Schubert (a devotee of Beethoven). At number six is the opera composer Verdi, followed by Tchaikovsky (his “Nutcracker” ballet gets performed every Christmas, and you remember his “1812 Overture” with the cannonfire at the end), then Handel (a contemporary of Bach who wrote the “Hallelujah!” chorus and the Christmas carol “Joy to the World”), then Schumann (an important 19th century composer who also helped revive Bach and promoted the young Brahms), and then Felix Mendelssohn (who wrote “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the music you hear at the end of a wedding).
Here’s a list of the top 20, by click-throughs, at Arkivmusic.com, along with a work by each composer that you’ve heard in an ad or a movie or somewhere:
1. 7,565 Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus (“A Little Night Music”)
2. 7,307 Bach, Johann Sebastian (“Air on a G String”)
3. 5,914 Beethoven, Ludwig van (Fifth Symphony)
4. 4,149 Brahms, Johannes (“Brahms’ Lullaby”)
5. 4,086 Schubert, Franz (“Unfinished Symphony”)
6. 3,592 Verdi, Giuseppe (“Women are Fickle” from “Rigoletto”)
7. 3,552 Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyich (“Romeo & Juliet”)
8. 3,098 Handel, George Frideric (“Water Music”)
9. 2,994 Schumann, Robert (“Dreaming”)
10. 2,827 Mendelssohn, Felix (“Wedding Song”)
11. 2,628 Chopin, Frédéric (“Minute Waltz”)
12. 2,560 Debussy, Claude (“Clair de Lune”)
13. 2,456 Wagner, Richard (“Ride of the Valkyries” — remember Brunnhilda?)
14. 2,450 Haydn, Franz Joseph (“The Creation”)
15. 2,310 Liszt, Franz (“Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2”)
16. 2,292 Puccini, Giacomo (“Nessun Dorma”, sung by Pavarotti at the World Cup)
17. 2,114 Ravel, Maurice (“Bolero” — remember the movie “10”?)
18. 2,086 Vivaldi, Antonio (“The Four Seasons”)
19. 2,078 Dvorák, Antonín (The “Goin’ Home” spiritual from the “New World Symphony”)
20. 2,003 Strauss, Richard (“Thus Spake Zarathustra” theme from the movie “2001”)
Of course, other websites will report different results. And queries for information don’t necessarily demonstrate overall popularity. Plus there are a number of critic sites that rate composers on their importance to world culture, and their lists can vary quite a bit. The above set is in rough agreement with most other sites, though, so it’s a quick and useful gauge that puts us in the ballpark.
What’s troubling is that every one of the people listed are dead white guys. Sure, there are a number of exciting composers working today (Glass, Reich, Torke, Whitacre), but none of them make the top 100 at Arkivmusic. In fact, on their entire list, only one composer is still alive, Estonian Arvo Part.
It’s as if classical music existed for museums.
The classics used to make up a good part of the FM radio spectrum; today, even in Los Angeles — the second biggest American media market — there’s only one classical station left. Classical music used to be broadcast regularly on network television; today, you’re lucky if you can see an occasional classical work on educational TV. Art music sometimes engages younger people, but if you attend a concert at the Los Angeles Music center, what you find is basically a sea of gray hair.
Globally, the audience for the classics stands at less than six percent. Pop and Rock together own more than half of all music sales on the planet. The only other major musical form that does as poorly as classical is jazz, which once had two-thirds of the record sales in America and dominated the world but now struggles to hold three percent. (Country and R&B, largely American phenomena, also hover near six percent worldwide but own much bigger shares stateside.) It gets worse with U.S. digital downloads, where classical garnered only a half percent of all sales in 2011.
At least we know that, among the paltry number of people who give a crap about classical music, their favorite composer is Mozart. No doubt he’d be tickled to learn this (and Beethoven merely ticked) … but let’s face it, ours is not exactly the age of classical music. How the mighty have fallen!